From the top of the pass, we looked down on summer pastures shimmering with haze. Cloud shadows drifted like wandering counties across the valley. Far off in the west, the grasslands tipped into empty reaches of sky. To the south stood the ramparts of the Trans-Alai mountains, a spur of the Pamirs, armoured with snow.
A rickety truck pulled up. Ropes held a precarious cargo in place, the baggage of nomads: tents and carpets, yurt poles and felt rolls, trunks and cast-iron stoves and two boys with baby lambs in their laps.
When the doors of the cab opened, people tumbled out like a conjuring trick, first five, then 10, then 15, an extended family of four generations from babes in arms to an ancient granny. They gathered on the edge of the road to gaze down, like us, into the valley of the Chong Kyzyl-Suu, 2,000ft below the pass, unrolled like a map of the promised land.
Two young women from the truck, sisters perhaps, stood arm in arm next to granny, half their size. ‘Perhaps this summer, you will be married,’ granny said, hopefully. The girls laughed, tilting their heads together. ‘The boys are too shy, granny.’
Back in the car, we spiralled down from the height of the pass. Bleating waves of sheep flooded the road until it felt like the whole landscape was on the move. Men on horseback whooped and hollered while dogs scampered back and forth. On the roadside, stalls had sprung up, selling bowls of kaymak, sweet yak’s cream, and bottles of kumis, fermented mare’s milk.
At a junction, we passed the turning Marco Polo might have taken seven centuries ago on his way to China, barely 80 miles to the east, across the high cols of the Pamirs. We turned westward, following another road as straight as a drawn line, towards the grasslands where the nomads were gathering.
Every spring the nomads of Kyrgyzstan make the migration from the confinement and drudgery of winter villages to these valleys where grass is plentiful and life is good. The jailoo is where the Kyrgyz feel to be themselves, among their yurts and their horses and their fattening flocks. These pastures are more than a place. They are a state of mind, a season of hopes and dreams and freedom.
Geography gave these regions their name – Central Asia, a mid-point in the great sprawl of the Eurasian continent. But for many people, they were not central at all. To the civilisations of the classical world, and to the great empires of India and Persia, they were a distant periphery, wild and unpredictable lands beyond barrier mountains. For the Chinese, these places were not only the outer darkness beyond the Wall, they were the reason they built the Wall, to keep out the nomadic peoples of Central Asia who seemed to be in the habit of invading civilised cities just for the sheer hell of it.
It was in the 1920s that Stalin, rounding up the remnants of the tsarist empire, created five Central Asian territories to add to those of the recently formed USSR. When the Soviet tide finally ebbed away again in 1991, each republic – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan – emerged as a newly independent nation. Of these five ‘stans’, the last – Kyrgyzstan – is the humblest, the quirkiest, the friendliest, the most beautiful and the most fascinating.
Locked away among mountains, Kyrgyzstan has an unreal storybook quality, a landscape of dizzy passes and plunging valleys. Its traditions are nomadic – the word Kyrgyz means ‘40 tribes’ – and before the arrival of the Russians in the 1870s, most towns, including Bishkek, the capital, consisted of round white yurts. In the old days bride kidnapping, often with the connivance of the bride, was the key to courtship. Horses are central to the culture. The men wear splendid felt hats that resemble tea cosies, the women wear kerchiefs like Mother Hubbard, and statues of Lenin still bestride the public squares like an ornamental garden gnome among flower beds, pointing to a future that never turned up.
I had been rambling through the country for a week or more before I arrived at Kyzyl-Suu. I went trekking around the ravishing Sary-Chelek lake, where the alpine meadows were glazed with flowers. At remote Song Kol, a place of wind and weather where silver rivers spilled like lacework across the fields, I hiked to high ridges to gaze into a world of nameless mountains and remote empty valleys. In Uzgen, I stepped into the crumbling mausoleums of the Karakhanids rulers, nomad kings whose dominions, a millennium ago, had been greater than India’s. In an Orthodox church in Osh, I sat in a back pew with an elderly Russian woman, now almost blind, as she told me how her family had been forcibly moved here by Stalin two generations ago as part of his endless demographic tinkering, and how she now felt abandoned in this wild place, as the influence of Russia dissolved.
From Osh we headed south. Almond-coloured gorges closed on the road, wooden footbridges crossed a fast green river and the road climbed into an arena of cloud-hued summits. The deeper we went – the further we travelled from the lowlands, with their bazaars and traffic and monuments of Lenin – the more animated my guide Dastan became. He seemed to blossom with remote mountain passes, began to bubble with energy and bonhomie as we neared the grasslands of Kyzyl-Suu. Gazing out the window of the car as yurts began to appear in those vast spaces, and horsemen galloped into the distance, Dastan shook his head in wonder. ‘Our young people should be forced to spend a month here,’ he said, thinking of the urban youth of Bishkek. ‘They would learn what it is to be a Kyrgyz.’
Beyond the ramshackle end-of-the-road town of Sary Mogol, we veered away, lurching along meandering tracks towards the foothills of the Trans-Alai as chubby ginger marmots scampered to the cover of their burrows. The complexities of landscape were unravelling. All the fussy details – roads, villages, farmlands, trees – were left behind, resulting in a thrilling simplicity. Wildflowers eddied into grassy hollows. Horses cantered along cloud-swept skylines. Tides of sheep rose across hillsides. And all across these velvet downs, round white yurts sprouted as mysteriously as mushrooms.
For three days we stayed in a yurt camp on the shores of Tulpar Kul, one of a string of lakes that lay in the lap of the Alai foothills. The felt yurts were full of carpets and eiderdowns, with cast-iron stoves to keep them warm and snug through the cold nights. Hearty meals were produced in an old railway carriage turned mess hall. Directly behind the camp rose the snow-clad Trans-Alai. Marco Polo claimed these summits were so high that birds no longer sang and fire burned cold. Marooned among turbulent clouds, the highest mountain – Lenin Peak, at more than 23,000ft – seemed to glow with pale flames. At night, the lake was ghostly as the pinpoint reflections of stars trembled on its dark surface.
Not many strangers came this way, and we were soon drawn into rounds of nomadic generosity. Invitations were issued, visits were paid, lavish lunches were laid out for us on the carpets of yurts – fresh squares of fried bread, yogurt and creamy butter, jams and honey, cheeses and endless bowls of tea. Hospitality is so central to nomadic culture that there were days when we felt lucky to get away with only two or three lunches.
One day we met an eagle hunter in a stony gorge with his prize bird. Perched on his wrist, the eagle leaned towards him, almost coquettishly, cuddling against his neck, while he stroked its breast feathers. They seemed to share some strange complicity. The hunter said: ‘I have raised her from a chick. I know her needs, her moods, her character.’
Then he took off the bird’s hood, and the eagle straightened, alert and focused, no longer a pet. Her beak was a grappling hook. Swivelling her head, her eyes, hard as stones, looked through me. A golden eagle can spot a mouse more than two miles away; her focus was on distances we could not even see. She spread her vast wings – the span was well over six feet – and lifted off his wrist. In a moment, she was soaring 1,000ft above us. In another moment, descending out of a blank sky, she dropped a dead marmot at her master’s feet.
Another day we came upon the cheese makers. Two women, mother and daughter, were stirring a vat of white curdling cheese with a wooden paddle. The younger woman, slim, ethereal, scurried away to prepare lunch for us, laying a nomad banquet across the carpets and mats of her yurt. As we sat cross-legged leaning on bolsters, she started to tell us about her life.
It was as if Venera had been waiting for us. We were the strangers from another world, people outside of the expectations of her own society, people who would not judge her. She poured tea and fussed with the bowls of honey and butter. Then she told us about her school days in the town, how she had loved history and literature, how there had been a Russian teacher who had shown her another world, how she had hoped to go to university and become a teacher herself. The old dreams tumbled out in the rose-coloured aqueous glow of the yurt.
She laughed suddenly, and spread her hands, opening them into the shaft of sunlight from the yurt door. ‘My husband is a good man, and the children…’ Her voice trailed away. We could see her two children through the door fighting over a stick.
‘My younger sister died,’ she said simply. ‘I could not leave my mother alone here, and anyway there was not the money for such hopes.’ She smiled at us and nodded. It was enough that she had shared this, these vanished hopes, with people who might understand what she meant.
On our last day we fell in with Baky, a septuagenarian patriarch, a man with a splendid tea-cosy hat, an old Russian army jacket and a pair of knee-high riding boots. He was camped in a long sloping valley, surrounded by the yurts of his six sons. Across the pastures, gangs of grandchildren ran and whooped like brigands. They circled us and tugged at our hands, and drew us, laughing, into their elaborate games of make-believe.
Later, another lunch was waiting in Baky’s yurt. Above his head, lashed to a pole, were the huge spiralling horns of a Marco Polo sheep; the itinerant Italian merchant was the first Westerner to note them here in the Pamirs.
When I asked him how many grandchildren he had, he hesitated, counted on his fingers, then shrugged and just said, ‘Many.’ I replied that it must be wonderful, having them all so close.
He looked at me for a moment and then asked if I had any children. I said one.
‘ONE,’ he bellowed, looking round at one of his sons. ‘One. What have you been doing with your time?’ Then he laughed and took my hand.
‘Listen,’ he went on. He held his finger up for a moment, for silence, so we could hear the sound of children playing outside, their voices strangely elongated as they called to one another, across the open spaces of the grassland. ‘The summer pastures,’ he said. ‘This is a sweet time for them. They are so free here. They will remember the feeling of these days and this place all their lives. As I remember when I was a boy here.’
He was stroking the back of my hand as if comforting me. ‘This is what is left of a man. These children. I am very lucky.’ He smiled. ‘And even you, with your lonely one, you are lucky too.’
And with that the vodka came out, and we toasted our luck and the joy of the summer pastures. Later he hung by the window of the four-wheel-drive as we were leaving to say goodbye. ‘Come back,’ he said. ‘When you have your grandchildren, come back. I won’t be here. But remind these children about our lunch, and the games you played with them. Come back and see them. They will be happy with a memory of these days.’ He stepped away from the car and we drove off, waving.
We went home in the twilight, following sandy tracks through the grasslands. Baroque clouds rode across tall darkening skies. In the dusk, our lake was silver. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the yurts. After dinner, I walked the lakeshore, and imagined my daughter’s hand in mine. I waited until the stars appeared, trembling on the surface of the water. Later, asleep in the snug womb of the yurt, I dreamed of grandchildren.
The writer travelled as a guest of Wild Frontiers, which arranges small group trips and tailor-made adventures to Kyrgyzstan. An 11-day private tour, including Bishkek, Sary-Chelek, Uzgen, Osh, Sary Mogol, Tulpar Kul and Tuyuk with guide, transport and some meals, costs from £2,350 per person, excluding international flights. wildfrontierstravel.com
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